THE MOVING TARGET
Part Nine Spoiler Alert
THE MOVING TARGET IS IMPORTANT, BUT IT IS GOOD?
First, what’s good about it?
- The invention of Lew Archer would make this important even if the book had no other merits beyond those of his earlier books.
- Archer falls into a category that is rare in fiction, and almost unique in the private eye genre—the narrator who is not truly a character.
- By giving Archer so little personality or depth of his own, Macdonald forces us to look at what he thinks is the moral and aesthetic center of the story—at the crime and the motivations of the criminal.
- If Archer was an ordinary private eye, we would be tempted to see the story in a binary, black and white way, with the reader rooting for the detective against the villain. For Macdonald, the process of detection is secondary to the drama behind how a person came to commit the crime.
- Although there is nothing to suggest that Macdonald intended to use Archer in a series, once circumstances forced Macdonald to consider more mysteries, the device of Archer was close at hand.
- Archer often will be used in the series to offer reflections on the role of fairness when faced with the consequences of evil. We are a long way from his pithy, “I hope for mercy but justice is what keeps happening to people,” but questions of the morality of his own actions is never far from his mind. Archer is as much a moral spokesman as he is a solver of crimes.
The Southern California setting
- Macdonald never allowed himself to forget that he was a Canadian, transplanted as an adult to California. (His birth and very early childhood in San Francisco do not seem to have figured into his thoughts.) By setting his books in California he creates a permanent state of alienation that allows Archer to comment almost as an outsider.
- Macdonald’s California is a state of mind and he makes no effort to describe Santa Theresa as Santa Barbara. His biggest concession to literal accuracy is the driving times between the major cities.
- His California is something of a cartoon; the cliffs above the beaches are filled with the ridiculously rich, who are most often his clients; further inland the middle class live on undistinguished streets; further yet are the masses of the poor, mostly brown and black, who struggle in squalor.
- Macdonald never let us forget the poor, even if they are peripheral to the plot. The character of Felix in The Moving Target is the best example in this book but his concern for social justice will never be far from his thoughts, or ours.
The dysfunctional family structure
- As noted, the Samson household is in chaos; both parents have abandoned their responsibilities to the children. Elaine has abandoned here role as a wife as well; Bob, the great hope of the family is dead, with Taggert making a poor substitute. Miranda throws herself at the unsuitable and unavailable Taggert. Her other possible mate is Graves, who she is uninterested in and who is nearly old enough to be her father. The academicians love to comment upon structures like this.
- Macdonald’s approach to families in his later books, especially rich ones, will use variations of this theme. To give a single example, the Summervilles in Sleeping Beauty differ in the details of their dysfunction, but the result is the same. The young are crippled in personality and live under the burden of their parents’ choices, even if they are not aware of it.
- We have seen this idea develop in Blue City and The Three Roads and now Macdonald gives it the prominence it will have in most of his later books.
- In its purest form, the impact of the dysfunctional family will reveal itself in The Galton Case.
Macdonald displays more control of stylistic issues
- As we have noted, Macdonald’s ear for dialogue has been less than reliable. I have seen several explanations. One, that his education in English Literature led him to write like everyone in his books was an English professor. (This one from his wife Margaret Millar.) Two, that as a recently transported Canadian he had no sense of how real Americans talked. The two explanations are not mutually exclusive and there are many others.
- Whatever the reason, clunky dialogue is a highly visible weakness. Readers will forgive a writer a paragraph of boring narrative; they can always skip through. But dialogue compels our attention. A question an writer constantly asks himself is, “Is this scene important enough that it should be told in dialogue?” Macdonald has made great strides from his earlier books, but he still struggles with the speech of criminals. It will be several more books before he starts writing the taught and vivid dialogue of his mature work.
- Macdonald is beginning to display his command of poetic description. He selects strong images for his similes and metaphors, and he pays particular attention to introducing them early in the story so they will be imprinted on our memories. His description of Mrs. Simpson as being tanned dark and hard, like a figured carved in mahogany, has stayed with me from the first time I read the book 40 years ago. And he is only going to get better at this.
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